Regret to Inform
Director: Barbara Sonneborn
Genre: Documentary
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Artistic License)

Grade: B-

The virtues of a film like this don't require much in the way of explication; it's hard not to be moved by the haggard faces and quavering voices of women eloquently mourning their long-dead husbands, killed in the midst of a stupid, pointless war. In fact, only an outright churl would think of pointing out that the film's pacifist conscience -- exemplified by the fact that fully half of the widows interviewed are Vietnamese -- is in roughly the same vein as that dopey Sting song about how much he hopes the Russians love their children too. Only a creep would suggest that the repeated shots of Sonneborn staring pensively out the window of a train en route to the site of her first husband's death must have been deliberately staged ("okay, Barb, we're rolling, look wistful"). Only a deranged serial killer, taking a brief respite from writing taunting notes to the police, would comment on the jejune nature of most of the voiceover narration ("This is where you died, Jeff. So scared, so young, so far away from home"). Okay, I'm done; the point is, while Regret to Inform is laudable and well-intentioned and often capable of bringing a tear to the eye or a lump to the throat, it's also clumsy and manipulative and disappointingly obvious -- typical PBS fare, in other words. At one point, Sonneborn notes that while Americans invariably refer to the conflict in which her husband was killed as the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese call it the American War; I waited for some kind of intriguing elaboration or ironic comment, but what I'd imagined to be a brief pause turned out to be the end of that particular train of thought -- Sonneborn apparently genuinely believed that this factoid would be surprising to an American audience, that we'd collectively raise our eyebrows and think, "hey, there was a whole other side to this war, wasn't there?" As a series of testimonials, Regret to Inform is a valuable document, impassioned and affecting; as a personal-essay film, it's sincere but mediocre; as a political statement, it's condescending crap.